The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Bastille Day! But instead of militarism, let’s celebrate the holiday with revolutionary French music by a revolutionary French composer. What French music would you choose?

July 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is July 14, known in the U.S. as Bastille Day.

That is the day in 1789 when the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by the masses and political prisoners were freed – marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The tradition is to play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that grew out of the revolution. Usually there is a military side to the arrangement of the anthem and the performance of it.

After all, it was a Bastille Day parade that even inspired President Trump to stage his egotistical “Salute to America” – satirically dubbed “Tanksgiving” — on the Fourth of July this year in Washington, D.C..

But The Ear has had quite enough of militarism and of the lying draft dodger who became commander-in-chief using patriotism to camouflage his un-American actions and ideas.

With no disrespect to those who served or are serving in the armed forces, there are many ways besides the military to be patriotic and even revolutionary.

So this year The Ear is choosing something subtle and less martial to mark the day.

It is a performance of “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks), a prelude for solo piano by Claude Debussy (below), who described himself – in an age where German and Italian music ruled – simply as a “French musician.” But make no mistake: Debussy, who was rejected for admission to the Paris Conservatory, was indeed a revolutionary figure in music history for his innovations in harmony and form.

(Perhaps this past season, you heard Marc-André Hamelin give an astoundingly virtuosic performance of “Fireworks” as an encore after his Sunday afternoon concerto performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Listen carefully and at the very end you will hear a subtle reference to the Marseillaise that adds the right touch to the pyrotechnical celebration of  “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Added to that, the fiery performance in the YouTube video at the bottom is by Robert Casadesus, a deservedly famous French pianist.

Finally, The Ear thinks you can celebrate Bastille Day with any number of French composers and French works, many of which remain neglected and underperformed. (The Ear is particularly partial to the music of Gabriel Faure, below, who taught Maurice Ravel.)

Who is your favorite French composer?

What is your favorite French piece of classical music?

Leave a comment with, if possible, a YouTube link.

Happy Bastille Day!!


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Classical music: A busy Sunday at the UW is highlighted by a FREE band concert and a public reception to mark the retirement of legendary band master Mike Leckrone

April 26, 2019
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ALERT: The Madison-based Avanti Piano Trio will give two FREE public concerts this weekend. The first one is TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, off the Capitol Square; the second one is on Sunday at 1 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church, 302 Wisconsin Avenue. Members of the trio are violinist Wes Luke, cellist Hannah Wolkstein and pianist Joseph Ross. The program includes works by Leon Kirchner, Ernest Bloch, Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms.

By Jacob Stockinger

As the semester and academic year come to a close, concerts usually get packed into the schedule.

This coming Sunday, April 28, is no different – except that one event is clearly the headliner.

Mike Leckrone (below, in a photo by UW Communications)  – the legendary and much honored director of bands and athletic bands at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – is retiring after 50 years.

Sunday marks a last appearance. He will conduct the UW Concert Band one last time and then be honored with a public reception.

The athletes and athletic fans love him. The students and band members love him. The alumni love him.

And, yes, the School of Music loves him. After all, not many band directors do what he did when he asked the late UW-Madison violin virtuoso Vartan Manoogian to perform the popular Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn with a band instead of an orchestra. But Manoogian agreed — and said he loved the experience.

Also, not many band directors could start an annual spring concert in Mills Hall with an audience of some 300 and then saw it grow decades later into a three-night extravaganza that packs the Kohl Center with some 50,000 people and gets seen statewide on Wisconsin Public Television.

One time years ago, The Ear — who was then working as a journalist for The Capital Times — interviewed Leckrone. It was a busy year when he and the Marching Band were going with the football and basketball teams to the Rose Bowl and the March Madness tournament.

Mike Leckrone was charming and humorous, open and candid. The interview was so good, so full of information and human interest, that it was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed statewide and nationally.

That’s how big Mike Leckrone’s fan base is. Other schools and bands envied him.

All honor, then, to this man of action and distinction who was also creative and innovative.

Here is more information – but, alas, no program — about the FREE band concert on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-spring-concert-2/

For really detailed biographical background about Mike Leckrone and his achievements, go to:

https://news.wisc.edu/mike-leckrone-a-legendary-career/

And here is a statement by Leckrone himself about his approach to teaching and performing as well as his plans for retirement. (You can hear an interview Leckrone did with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

http://ls.wisc.edu/news/hitting-the-high-notes

Now you may think Leckrone can’t be followed.

But just this past week, the UW-Madison announced that Corey Pompey (below) is Leckrone’s successor. Here is a link to the official announcement, with lots of background about Pompey:

https://news.wisc.edu/new-marching-band-director-to-take-the-baton/

What else is there to say except: Thank you, Mike!

On, Wisconsin!

As for other events at the UW on Sunday:

At 4 p.m., in Mills Hall, University Bands will perform a FREE concert.  Darin Olsen, O’Shae Best and Cole Hairston will conduct. No program is listed.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madrigal Singers (below top) will perform a FREE concert. Bruce Gladstone (below bottom, in a  photo by Katrin Talbot) will conduct. No word on that program either.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players open their new season with three concerts this weekend that feature music by Chick Corea, Bruce Broughton, Alexander Arutiunian and others

September 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) officially begin their 2017-2018 season series with the theme “Journey” this coming weekend with a concert titled Departure on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m.

However, the Oakwood Chamber Players will also present a special performance at Bos Meadery (below), 849 E. Washington Ave., on this Friday night, Sept. 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in a range of music choices that will include excerpts from the Departure concert along with a breadth of other styles of music. Donations will be accepted.

The two full-length concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the far west side of Madison near the West Towne Mall.

Guest artists pianist Joseph Ross, violist Sharon Tenhundfeld (below top) and violinist Maureen McCarty (below bottom) will join members of the Oakwood Chamber Players to launch their season.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks (no credit cards) at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students.

For tickets and more information, go to www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316.

According to a press release, “Departure will explore composers’ musical journeys as influenced by shifts in their artistic lives.

“Just two years after the start of his huge success in the expanding world of jazz-fusion, with renowned hits such as “Spain,” American composer and pianist Chick Corea (below) wrote his Trio for flute, bassoon and piano in 1973.

“He created a fascinating blend — a classical style that both reflects his personal jazz-like fluidity at the keyboard but also transfers the sense of conversational-like interactions that occurs between players. (You can hear Chick Corea’s Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“This succinct piece is infused with the composer’s essential and recognizable artistic voice. Corea bridges the boundary between genres in an artful and engaging way, creating a brief snapshot of two artistic worlds joined through the piece’s synergy.

“Academy Award-winning and Emmy award-winning film composer Bruce Broughton (below) has consistently contributed to the world of chamber music literature. Broughton’s successes in the film industry include Young Sherlock Holmes, Silverado and The Rescuers Down Under.

“His Primer for Malachi, for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, was written in anticipation of the birth of a grandchild in 1997. Through its five short movements the piece creates a programmatic feel. It begins with quiet introspection, progressing through each movement with increasing rhythmic and melodic intensity, peaking with an action-packed instrumental musical tag, and concluding by musically catching its breath, slowing in the final movement to calm and flowing lines, mirroring the opening effect.

“Known for his emotive melodies Armenian-Soviet pianist and composer Alexander Arutiunian wrote prolifically for orchestra, chamber music and film.

“Written in Armenia after spending several years in Moscow, the Concert Waltz for winds and piano is taken from his 1958 film score for the movie “About My Friend.” It is a wry waltz set in a minor key, and the composer infuses the familiar waltz dance form with a tongue-in-cheek sense of being on a slightly careening carousel. The piece sparkles with Armenian folk flavor and the energy is captivating.

“The Kaiserwaltz by Viennese composer Johann Strauss musically conjures up the grandeur of the ballroom. The piece was intended to symbolize ‘a toast of friendship’ between Germany and Austria. The waltz is full of upbeat musical declarations and graceful melodies.

“The Oakwood Chamber Players were pleased to discover that the piece had been reimagined from its full orchestral orchestration, written in 1889, to this delightful version, arranged in 1925 for chamber ensemble by Arnold Schoenberg (below). The grace of this music is refined and enduring.

“German composer and organist Max Reger’s perspective on compositional artistry was informed by the masters who came before him.

“However, perpetually fascinated by fugues, Reger (below) often wrote pieces that were very abstract. He worried about the lasting reputation of penning these kinds of ultra-academic compositions. He was an ardent admirer of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven and was very capable of writing a range of styles that were both accessible and rooted in the historic perspectives.

“In his Serenade for flute, violin, and viola, written just a year before his death, he sought to show the range of his compositional capabilities and to silence critics by leaving more approachable music for posterity. At this pivotal time he reached his goal ably, giving the performers an outstanding piece with nimble rhythms, memorable melodies, and the bright voicing of an upbeat sound palette.”

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 26; Jan. 13 and 14; March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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